A veteran state wildlife biologist was killed Saturday afternoon in the Yakima River canyon when he accidentally walked into the rotating...

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SELAH, Yakima County — A veteran state wildlife biologist was killed Saturday afternoon in the Yakima River canyon when he accidentally walked into the rotating blades of a sitting helicopter, officials said.

Rocky Spencer, based in King County, had worked for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife since 1978. He earned a reputation as a knowledgeable and well-liked mentor to many in the agency, department spokesman Craig Bartlett said Saturday evening from Olympia.

On Saturday, he was part of a team assigned to relocate bighorn sheep from private property in the canyon to a Pullman research facility for Washington State University, Bartlett said.

About 3 p.m., the helicopter landed east of state Route 821 and about 13 miles north of Selah.

Bartlett said Spencer had flown on wildlife helicopters before, but this time the craft came to rest on angled ground, causing the rotor blades to point downward more than usual. When he stepped out of the helicopter, he apparently walked into the blades, Bartlett said.

“Rocky was doing what he loved, and it’s a dangerous job. He was really one of the best we had at doing this kind of thing,” Bartlett said.

The exact cause of the incident remained under investigation, and Bartlett could not immediately address the agency’s protocol for safely exiting helicopters. Pilots generally recommend landing on as flat a surface as possible to avoid rollovers and other mishaps.

Fish and Wildlife uses contractors for helicopter missions across the state. Bartlett said he did not know which firm was hired for Saturday’s project. Representatives of an Olympia flight company whose fuel truck was at the scene could not be reached by phone on Saturday night.

Spencer’s tenure with the agency began in 1977, when he volunteered to trap and band grouse, according to a biography posted on the Fish and Wildlife Web site. He started as a temporary scientific technician in 1978.

He worked in Olympia and at several regional offices during his career.